THE UGLY ONE by Marius von Mayenburg, presented by Pretty Villian Productions, Rialto Theatre, Brighton, Wed 2 November 2016.
In Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde famously wrote: "Beauty is a form of Genius - is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation." Murius Von Mayneburg's cutting piece of social satire came under the surgical knife of Brighton-based Pretty Villian Productions, who took an ambitious stab at a piece of writing which, contrary to Wilde's musings, does require some explanation and a degree of dissection. Following on from their successful production of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross in this year's Brighton Fringe, Pretty Villain are fearless when it comes to making bold theatre selections and The Ugly One is no different: a multi-layered, fast-paced comi-tragedy which unpacks itself swiftly and sharply.
Like beauty, the play works on two levels: the visceral, skin-deep, superficial one and, digging deeper, the underlying commentary on how we perceive ourselves and others. The story of a successful, but somewhat guileless inventor, who is unable to represent his inventions in public (and therein be the face of his own creations) because of his 'indescribable ugliness'. The premise is skilfully identified from the opening scene; the action begins with Lette's sniffling boss, Scheffler, nonchalantly tossing orange peels into the auditorium, even firing them at some audience members (aside from smelling citrusy, no one was hurt.) In this single act of dismissal, director Lauren Varnfield captures the play's innate duality: that of peeling back the layers of judgement which influence our perceptions of people and of the literal peeling back of Lette's face, as he begrudgingly surrenders to plastic surgery; an act he describes as: 'giving up my face'.
Robert Cohen (who could easily double for Billy Crystal) plays Lette and rather convincingly affects a nervous naivety in his depiction of our protagonist. Adopting a child-like innocence - which invariably comes with the territory of 'geeky inventors' - Cohen's Lette commands our sympathies from the beginning as he is confronted with the sinking revelation that everybody around him is profoundly aware... of his profound ugliness. Something of a master of hesitation and awkwardness, Cohen adds a pathos and platitude to his character which is tangible and authentic. Whether intended or not, the piece of string that hung from Lette's crotch area for the entire duration of the play, did seem to whisper to his character's vulnerability, lack of awareness and ultimate tragedy.
In a similar display of directorial decisiveness - or fruity accident - Tom Dussek's performance of Lette's arrogant boss, Scheffler, showed he wasn't afraid to get his fingers dirty for the part; the peel of which I spoke earlier, clung to his fingers in both the beginning and closing scenes of the play and his frequent attempts to flick it off mirrored his attempts to flick Lette out of any attempt to have a public facing role. A play that doubles up on characters meant that Dussek had the opportunity to play his other hand in the form of Lette's plastic surgeon; a creepy, self-indulgent sculptor of new faces, he was reminiscent of Steve Martin's crazed dentist in the film version of Little Shop of Horrors. A large and committed performance as both characters - and a marionette's dexterity with his hand gestures - I did, however, feel there could have been more of a transition between the two.
Completing the four-hander, Kitty Newbury and Jonathon Howlett also had the job of multiple characterisation and, in Newbury's case, it was a triple feat. Playing Fanny: Lette's wife, the plastic surgeon's nurse/assistant, and a client of Lette's company, Newbury had the challenge of transitioning into three largely different parts, as well as the juxtaposition of playing against her own natural beauty and sex appeal. While I felt, as with Dussek, there could have been more of a clear distinction between each of them, she did come into her own as the play progressed and the lines of distinction became more clearly drawn. Howlett, playing Karlmann, doubled up as both Fanny's camp teenage son and Lette's irreverent colleague. In my view, he achieved the most convincing character distinction - and perhaps the writing lends itself to that - a slightly cold, undemonstrative colleague holding himself squarely on stage, played against an inadequate, bent adolescent, who wants to sleep with the new and improved Lette and, arguably, his mother. I hear Freud applauding.
The main let down for me was the set and the wardrobe, which I felt did not marry with the boldness of the script or the visceral subject matter. For a play obsessed with beauty and aesthetic, it would have heightened both the message and helped character transitions to give a little more thought to what the characters are wearing (and why) and superficial world which the characters inhabit. The lighting was used to good effect to help with the surgical montages and Lette's mirror monologue at the end of the play, but some careful attention to costume and wardrobe would have given the play a pinch of magic that performance alone cannot always drive home.
Overall, an enjoyable and well-paced piece of satire, skilfully handled by the actors, unafraid to use the gangway in the auditorium, which, with some stronger transitions and a sprinkling of aesthetic charm, positions itself well for future performances. Should Pretty Villain decide to take it forward, it could be ultimate ugly duckling in next year's fringe - and we all know how beautifully that story ends!